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In Lamont's Connecticut, a felony arrest for a critic

I can't recall, in all my years of covering government, courts and crime in Connecticut, the unimaginable: those in power using state police to harass, arrest or try to jail their critics or political opponents.

But here we are in 2020, under the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont, and that's exactly, incredibly, what's happening.

I refer to the August arrest of Kevin Blacker, a longtime critic of the Connecticut Port Authority, whose dogged watchdog scrutiny of the quasi-public agency helped uncover widespread corruption, from the hiring of friends with no-bid contracts to unfettered personal spending with no accounting controls.

Blacker has howled over what he calls the great injustice of the authority's closing New London's historic deepwater port to traditional cargo while diverting that business to the politically connected operators who run the competing port in New Haven.

And now, because of an erroneous complaint concocted by Gov. Ned Lamont's endorsed chairman of the port authority board, David Kooris, Blacker faces a felony charge of first-degree criminal mischief, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

You would think, based on the false nature of the criminal complaint, that we are living in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Sadly, this isn't even the first time the Lamont team has used state police to intimidate Blacker. Two police officers, whistled in by Lamont lieutenants, last year confronted him and took him into a windowless room for questioning shortly before he was to attend a General Assembly public hearing on the port authority.

Apparently, they were not able to concoct any charges then.

But last month Chairman Kooris did just that, reporting to state police that Blacker had vandalized street signs near State Pier, estimating the damage at $1,663, just above the $1,500 threshold that would make it a felony charge, the kind that can create a criminal record that can dog you for life.

Blacker had admitted painting the street signs as an act of civil disobedience. He expected to get arrested on a misdemeanor charge. He said he intentionally left the metal support poles undamaged, to make replacement easier.

A spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, which owns the signs, said this week the replacement of the signs is expected to be finished soon, with an estimated cost of $386.98 for labor and materials, way below the felony threshold.

So it turns out Chairman Kooris not only took it upon himself to personally report Blacker's vandalizing of signs that are owned and managed by DOT, not the port authority, but he decided to submit what turned out to be a wildly inflated estimate of the damage, based on what he said was a calculation by a port authority contractor.

Kooris told me at the time of Blacker's arrest that he had no knowledge of the threshold in statues that would make his erroneous $1,663 estimate of the damage caused by Blacker a felony.

Really? Why did he offer one to police in the first place? What business was it of his?

Why did the chairman himself call police over damage to signs the port authority doesn't even own and then submit what turns out to be an inflated estimate of the cost to repair them, one that would saddle a critic of him and his agency with a crippling felony criminal charge?

And why did the state police Eastern Connecticut Major Crime Unit go along with this sham, making a felony arrest for damage to the signs based on an erroneous complaint by someone with an ax to grind, without ever talking to the owner of the property?

State police Detective Justin Clachrie wrote Blacker in an email this week that he has submitted a supplemental report to prosecutors with the much lower DOT estimate of damage, which of course he should have obtained before lodging a felony charge.

Because of an erroneous and apparently vindictive complaint from Lamont's port authority czar, and the compliance of state police, Blacker still has to crawl out from under a felony arrest, one that will long outlive him, no matter what happens in court, and never disappear from Google searches.

This seems to be the shape of punishment for speaking out in Lamont's Connecticut.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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